Following a lengthy search, Zach Arnett selected App State’s Kevin Barbay to become Mississippi State football’s next Offensive Coordinator.
After 3 years of running the Mike Leach Air Raid, what can Bulldog fans expect to see out of their offense going forward?
Mississippi State fans have gotten used to a very specific brand of offense over the last 3 years. The Mike Leach Air Raid was truly one of a kind. Even in an era where wide-open, pass-happy offenses are commonplace (a credit to Leach himself), there was no one employing a scheme and philosophy like the Pirate’s “OG” Air Raid.
But with Mike Leach’s tragic passing, Mississippi State now needs someone else to lead its offense. New Head Coach Zach Arnett chose to go outside the program to make a hire, and he landed on Appalachian State’s Kevin Barbay as the guy. And the question now facing Bulldog fans is what this new offense will look like.
Well, it’s going to look quite different…
Kevin Barbay comes to Starkville after spending the 2022 season serving as App State’s Offensive Coordinator. During his 1 year in Boone, Barbay produced an offense that scored nearly 35 points per game and over 455 yards per game. Prior to App State, Barbay had spent 7 of 8 years working under current Central Michigan HC Jim McElwain, starting as a Director of Player Personnel and rising up to become McElwain’s OC and Quarterbacks Coach in 2021.
One of the biggest takeaways from the hire was the “big play” nature of Barbay’s offense. As the Clarion Ledger’s Stefan Krajisnik pointed out on Twitter, Barbay’s App State offense ranked 22nd in total yards per play, 18th in pass yards per attempt, and 11th in passes of 40+ yards. Last season App State ranked 33rd in scrimmage plays of 20+ yards. Mississippi State was 83rd.
Dave Bartoo of Matrix Analytical further highlighted the explosiveness and high efficiency that comes with Kevin Barbay’s scheme.
Despite not utilizing the high-volume passing attack of Mike Leach, Barbay’s system has produced one of the most efficient passing games in college football over the past 2 seasons. Barbay couples high-efficiency passing with a powerful rushing game. His 2022 offense ranked 21st in both rush yards per game and yards per rush. At CMU in 2021, running back Lew Nichols III led the nation in rushing with Barbay as his play-caller.
Whereas Mike Leach defined offensive balance as touches and yardage being evenly distributed amongst all skill players, Barbay’s offense certainly aligns more with the traditional definition of balance, with a more even split between rush and pass attempts. Through his 2 seasons as an FBS play-caller, Barbay’s offenses have leaned slightly run-heavy at 53% run compared to 47% pass (adjusting for sacks). This is quite different from the Air Raid. Even in 2022, in which State rushed the ball the most of their 3 seasons under Leach, the Bulldogs still threw the ball on 71% of their plays. Needless to say, the many State fans that clamored for their squad to run the football more over the past 3 years are going to get their wish.
While Barbay’s offense doesn’t necessarily fit into any one specific schematic branch, it can probably be best described as a multiple, power-spread attack. You’ll see his teams work out of several formations with various personnel groupings, including heavier, multiple tight-end sets fairly often. He builds around his rushing attack and uses the ground game to set up deep shots off of play-action. As is the case with the majority of college offenses today, Barbay does utilize RPOs. The tempo of his team’s work tends to vary.
Much of what I’ve described wouldn’t be a foreign concept to State fans. While a stark contrast from the Air Raid, “spread to run” offenses were all Bulldog fans knew from 2009-2019. A noticeable difference between Barbay’s offenses compared to the Mullen/Moorhead offenses from that era is the lack of emphasis on the quarterback run game. While those systems leaned heavily on having a QB that could beat you with his legs, that hasn’t been much of a factor for Barbay beyond the occasional option or QB draw. Granted, Barbay hasn’t called plays for a dual-threat QB during his time as a coordinator. I’d obviously expect that he’d feature the QB run game if that was within his QB’s skillset. But it’s important to recognize that his offense’s success doesn’t hinge on having a runner under center.
Let’s highlight a few aspects of Barbay’s offense…
Something that sticks out watching Barbay’s teams is the use of the pistol formation. He mixed it in frequently at CMU, and at App State, it was often their base look. That’ll be a change-up in Starkville. While Dan Mullen used it some during his early years here, it hasn’t been used since (at least not that I can remember).
The pistol allows for teams to get more of the downhill rushing game that working under center provides while utilizing a shotgun snap. And with the RB aligned directly behind the QB, you provide less of a “tell” as to which direction you’re running the ball, as opposed to the shotgun where, usually, a run will go opposite of where the RB is aligned.
Barbay will show a variety of looks out of the pistol. Among these include aligning a tight end in an H-Back/Fullback type role next to the QB to act as a lead blocker or cut off a backside defender on split flow. It’s classic “power football” adapted for the spread.
If we’re going to emphasize Barbay’s use of the running game, we need to at least discuss some of what to expect in that department. Barbay primarily builds around a zone-rushing attack. At App State specifically, he built around outside-zone, usually out of the pistol.
Outside-zone is an incredibly versatile concept. At its core, it’s a way to force horizontal movement from the defense and get to the edge. But as with all zone runs, it can hit at multiple angles. That lateral stress put on the defense can lead to over-pursuit, resulting in gaping running lanes up the middle for the ball carrier to attack.
Another benefit to outside-zone is the counters that can be run off of it. The hard flow to one side allows for misdirection plays the other way. You’ll see Barbay run jet sweeps, play-action bootlegs, and even speed option opposite of outside zone action.
While the majority of Barbay’s runs are zone concepts, you’ll see plenty of gap scheme runs as well. Down blocks and pulling lineman weren’t frequently utilized in Mike Leach’s offense (though he did implement a pin-and-pull sweep at MSU), so seeing the Bulldogs breaking out power and counter will be new.
RPOs (Run Pass Options) are all the rage in football these days. Pretty much everyone is running them, and in many cases, teams have completely ditched the quick passing game in favor of RPOs. That wasn’t the case with Mike Leach. Though Leach had been attaching quick screens to WRs with his running plays since his days working with Hal Mumme in the 90s, he never adopted the downfield, post-snap read RPOs you see taking over the sport. He still greatly valued his quick game, and considering his teams only ran the ball in light defensive boxes anyways, he chose not to add another element to the system.
Barbay, on the other hand, is more in line with the rest of the sport. While you won’t see them non-stop, he does mix in RPOs with his offense. Whether it be a dump-off to a TE in the flat after an LB crashes down, a pop pass over the middle, or throwing a vertical route to an outside WR facing 1-on-1 coverage, Barbay has several passes that he’ll tag onto running plays to keep defenses guessing (and guessing wrong).
Something State fans got plenty familiar with under Leach were screens. They were a big part of the Air Raid, and they’ll remain a big part of the offense under Barbay. Barbay has several different screens that he’ll use, but I thought I’d highlight one that’s a twist on a classic Air Raid concept: the shallow screen.
The shallow cross concept was a mainstay in the Mike Leach offense. One WR runs a drag route just past the defensive line (the shallow cross) while an opposite WR runs a dig route downfield behind it, creating a high/low read for the QB. The shallow is an easy way to get the ball to a speedy playmaker in space, as defenders dropping into coverage vacate that area.
On a shallow screen, you’re taking the same idea of getting the ball out quickly to a speedster in space, but rather than have your other WRs running routes, they’re acting as downfield blockers. As opposed to the traditional shallow cross, the WR running the shallow will look to run his route just behind the line of scrimmage so that the downfield blocks are legal. But just like the original concept, you’re attacking the open space left from the pass rush and dropping defenders.
This is just one of several screens you’ll see from Barbay. Along with running traditional screens to RBs, he’ll motion WRs into the backfield and throw them screens off of swing routes, and hit TEs on angle routes over the middle. If you’re looking to get the ball into the hands of a playmaker and let them go to work, Barbay has a way to do it.
The thing that has State fans most excited about Barbay taking over as OC (well, besides running the ball more) is the deep passing game. Deep shots have not been commonplace with the MSU offense in the last few years. Teams playing drop-8 zone coverage didn’t present many opportunities to throw downfield. As I pointed out earlier, Barbay’s offense has a knack for producing explosive plays in the passing game. He’ll gladly dial up several deep shots throughout games.
There really isn’t much to break down here, as the formula is really simple. Get defenses to cheat up and commit to stopping the run and then take a shot off of play-action behind them. Here’s an example of that in action:
How will it look at MSU?
Now the most important question: how does this translate to MSU? The raw stats and analytics all suggest that Barbay has been an excellent play-caller who runs an effective system. And we can spend hours looking at cool plays he’s run at prior stops. But how will it work here?
Far and away the biggest issue for MSU and running Barbay’s system is the lack of TEs. They’re a big part of what Barbay wants to do, and MSU has none on the roster. A popular solution has been to move RS-SO WR Antonio Harmon to TE, as he played the position in HS. But Harmon is listed at 6-3, 215. Even if he were to put on some weight in the off-season, he’d still be pretty undersized for a TE. Obviously, MSU will turn to the transfer portal to find options there, but it needs to be pointed out that finding SEC-caliber TEs in the portal isn’t as easy as you’d think.
While I’m sure State will manage to land a quality starter at the TE position for next season, I tend to think it’s unlikely that we see TEs utilized as heavily as Barbay prefers. He’s rarely used 4 WR sets in the past, but I’d expect you’ll still see plenty of that from MSU this year as their personnel transitions more to Barbay’s liking. I’d also expect that in situations where he’d typically have an H-back in as an extra blocker, you could see MSU utilize 2-back looks with the same idea in mind. Barbay is going to have to get creative with personnel this year as he tries to mesh his philosophy with the current roster.
Building off that point, I’d be surprised if Barbay doesn’t call a more pass-happy offense than he has previously. While he traditionally has been run-first, he’s inheriting a team built for throwing it around. Certainly, you’re going to see a much greater emphasis on running the football, but I don’t expect the drop-back passing game we’ve grown used to just disappear. Assuming that Barbay is willing to adjust to his personnel, you’re not going to see the Bulldogs revert back to the “Always Run Never Pass” days in 2023.
Regardless, Barbay will need to make this transition as seamless as possible. As it’s been discussed many times, Mississippi State is set up for a big year on the gridiron next season with all of the experience coming back from a 9-win, Top 25 team and a favorable schedule. It’s safe to assume the Bulldog defense will remain strong with the continuity on that side of the ball. But the offense is where countless changes will be made. If State wants to deliver upon high expectations, Barbay’s offense will have to click right away.